‘Demodification’ of India: A Nepalese perspective

Front pages of the major Indian broadsheets following the results of the general election. Image via Nepali Times.

Front pages of the major Indian broadsheets following the results of the general election. Image via Nepali Times.

This story was originally published by Chandra Kishore in Nepali Times. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The marathon Indian election race and its nail-biting finish were watched with great interest in Nepal, and nowhere more so than here in the borderlands of the Tarai.

Next door in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faced a dramatic upset — even in Ayodhya, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated a Hindu temple complex built on the ruins of a mosque earlier this year.

Kathmandu-based India “experts” spread many conspiracy theories ahead of the elections mainly about how Modi’s Hindutva political ideology would spread to the Tarai. They were unable to distinguish between political Hindutva and faith-based Hindu activities.

Even though the BJP is forming the next government, it is behaving as if it lost the election because it set the bar too high for itself. Despite all the parties uniting in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) led by Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, it still got fewer votes than the BJP. Yet the alliance is celebrating a victory.

The main message of the Indian election result that should have relevance for Nepal is that voters in the world’s largest democracy refused to whole-heartedly support the BJP’s divisive religious extremism, and have given a nod to inclusion, tolerance and equality.

Populism, the cult of personality, faux-nationalism, the muzzling of media and civil society, as well as religious and socio-cultural polarisation will ultimately be rejected at the grassroots. It was India’s Dalits, indigenous people, and the marginalised who punctured the BJP’s saffron balloon.

But the Indian electorate also put the BJP back in power to reward Modi for the visible progress in infrastructure, and making many Indians feel good about themselves.

The BJP party is facing internal tension as it analyses why the party did not do as well as expected. The ill-concealed rivalry between the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, the alienation of India’s sizeable Muslim and Dalit population strengthened the hand of the Congress.

It is said that the road to power in New Delhi is via Uttar Pradesh, because of the state’s sheer population size. The BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, who is also the high priest of the Gorakhnath Temple with strong ties to the Nepal monarchy, is expected to now have less clout in New Delhi.

This means the political forces in Nepal who were trying to roll back secularism and restore the monarchy with moral support from the south, will also face a setback. The border states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh both largely rejected the politics of religious extremism.

The election has also boosted Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal, who has been supportive of Nepal’s democratic path. The fact that he and the Congress are now stronger in Delhi will reassure Nepal’s democratic forces; however, the leaders in Kathmandu will have to face the fact that their future political careers depend more on domestic performance rather than who rules in Delhi.

The other two Indian states bordering Nepal are Sikkim and Uttaranchal. Prem Tamang of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha won a landslide, while in Uttaranchal the BJP won with its strident call to make the state an exclusive Hindu Holy Land.

One often overlooked fact is that India’s relations with Nepal are determined more by bureaucracy in the south block of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs than politicians. But India’s fraught relationships with several regional nations and growing competition over regional influence with China means that Nepal is very much on Modi’s radar.

The BJP was in power when Nepal suffered a five-month blockade by India in 2015, and it could be that an insecure Modi in 2024 will try to assert dominance again to signal detractors back home that he is still in charge.

Phases of 2024 Lok Sabha Elections in India. Image by r Rajeshodayanchal via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Phases of 2024 Lok Sabha Elections in India. Image by r Rajeshodayanchal via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

One pollster broke down in tears on TV as the final results were coming in on Tuesday. The NDA, which includes the BJP, won 293 seats in the federal parliament, while I.N.D.I.A. led by the Indian National Congress won 234 seats. A party or coalition needs to win at least 272 out of 543 seats to form a majority.

To say India's election results were unpredictable would be an understatement. Exit polls had predicted a massive win for the BJP and Modi.

The BJP by itself won 240 seats, falling wildly short of its election promise of 400. Unlike in 2014, and 2016, the BJP is depending on its allies to form a government.

Modi’s key allies in the NDA coalition, Janata Dal United’s Nitish Kumar and the Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu who are said to have aspirations of their own to become prime minister, are now kingmakers.

During his last two terms, that very majority gave PM Modi the power to control his Cabinet at whim, but he no longer has that luxury.

The BJP’s underwhelming performance was due to a growing void between the BJP and its Hindu ideological guru the RSS, animosity between Modi and influential BJP leaders like Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, and the Indian general public’s heightening discontent towards Modi and the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP had won 62 out of 80 seats in 2019, this time it won only 33, and the Samajwadi Party of I.N.D.I.A. alliance won 37 out of 80 seats.

Modi’s decade-long rule over India has been characterised by his monopolistic control over the political mechanism and state institutions, a media sector full of lapdogs, a silenced civil society and persecuted opposition, as well as increasing socio-cultural polarisation.

Over the years, Modi’s former fringe Hindutva ideology spread like wildfire to the mainstream, and the struggles faced by Dalits, Muslims, and other minorities were swept under the rug. However, democratic and political movements across the world have shown us that the relentless targeting of marginalised communities eventually leads to resistance against the injustices brought upon them by the dominant groups.

The results of the election are a reflection of the growing intolerance to the suffering of everyday Indian citizens and have served as a safety valve of India’s democracy. Modi is infamous for his long memory. He systematically silenced critics and dissenters and developed a God complex.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi and his INC won 99 seats, and seems to have keyed into the pulse of India, forgoing the politics of polarisation to focus on pressing issues including a massive unemployment problem, inflation, social security, and farmers’ rights. The INC did not win overall, but its election strategy gained traction.

Overall, Modi seems more relieved about I.N.D.I.A.’s failure to collectively win as many parliament seats as the BJP did on its own than about being prime minister for the third time.

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